Four Serb Policemen Jailed for Suva Reka Massacre
The War Crimes Chamber of Belgrade’s District Court this week convicted four Serbian former police officers of the murders of 50 Kosovo Albanian civilians in what was widely considered to be one of the worst atrocities committed during the 1998-99 Kosovo war.
However, three of their co-accused were released, after being acquitted on all charges.
Forty-eight out of 50 victims who were executed by Serbian forces in the village of Suva Reka on March 26, 1999, were members of the Berisha family.
At the end of the trial, which began in October 2006, former police commander in Suva Reka, Radojko Repanovic, and ex-policeman Sladjan Cukaric were each sentenced to 20 years in prison after being found guilty of participating in the massacre.
Another former policeman, Miroslav Petkovic, and an ex-member of the Serbian State Security Service, Milorad Nisavic, were sentenced to 15 and 13 years respectively.
Three other accused – former commander of the Special Police Unit Radoslav Mitrovic, and ex-policemen Nenad Jovanovic and Zoran Petkovic – were acquitted of all charges and released after the verdict was delivered.
According to the judgement, Mitrovic, who was a prime suspect in this case, was found not guilty because no-one from his unit was in Suva Reka on the day of the massacre. Jovanovic and Petkovic were acquitted due to a lack of evidence, the judges said.
Prosecutors and defence lawyers of each of the four convicted men have already announced they intend to appeal the verdict.
In the judgement read out on April 23, the judges said this was the worst single massacre of civilians to occur during the Kosovo war, and the victims included 14 children, two babies, a pregnant woman and a 100-year-old woman.
The crime took place in the spring of 1999, during clashes between the Serbian police and Yugoslav army, VJ, on one side and the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, on the other.
The judges found in their ruling that on March 26, the defendants rounded up members of the Berisha family in their village of Suva Reka, killing several elderly men with machine-gun fire before forcing the rest of the family into a pizza restaurant and throwing hand-grenades at them.
According to prosecutors in the case, those who showed any signs of life were shot in the head, and the bodies were then transported to a mass grave in Prizren, where they were initially buried.
Some body parts of the victims of the Suva Reka massacre were also unearthed at a secondary mass grave in Batajnica near Belgrade, in an apparent attempt to hide the atrocities. Autopsies of the remains found both in Prizren and Batajnica showed the victims were not killed in a battle, but executed.
Explaining the sentences handed down to the four convicted men, presiding judge Vinka Beraha-Nikicevic said, “The court established that they acted together with the aim to kill [members of the ethnic] Albanian population in Suva Reka on March 26, 1999.
“Many eyewitnesses said that Repanovic ordered Cukaric, Petkovic and other policeman to round up and execute Albanian civilians detained in the Calabria pizza restaurant.”
She said that according to witnesses, Petkovic and Cukaric shot at the women, children and elderly men, as they tried to run away from the police.
Shortly after the verdict was handed down, Serbia’s War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office said it would appeal against the three acquittals.
“We don’t think the justice has been served”, said Bruno Vekaric, spokesman for the prosecutor’s office.
He added that the court heard testimonies from 128 witnesses, which should have been enough for a different outcome.
Dragoljub Todorovic, a lawyer who represents the victims’ family, told IWPR that the court’s decision to acquit the prime suspect and the highest-ranking of the seven accused, Radoslav Mitrovic, was “scandalous”.
Mitrovic’s lawyer, Goran Petronijevic, told IWPR that he was satisfied with the judges’ decision, adding that the court still hasn’t established all facts related to the massacre in Suva Reka.
“This was a very serious crime and it has to be fully investigated,” he said.
One relative of the victims, Idriz Hadzija, told the media that after this verdict – particularly the acquittal of the three defendants – he couldn’t fully trust the Serbian judiciary.
“In the end, they tricked us, after three years of court proceedings,” said another family member, Dzelal Berisha.
Aleksandar Roknic is an IWPR-trained journalist in Belgrade.